In a previous life I may have been a Roman matron who raptly listened to poetry readings at dinner parties. Latin was my third foreign language, and perhaps because it was the third I found it easy. I breezily won the Latin prize in college and was one of two students to pass the Ph.D. Latin exam my year. Latin is complex and highly inflected, and I quickly realized that some of my very intelligent fellow students enjoyed the study of history or linguistics but were incapable of translation. We who could translate stuck together (and salute you)!
Throughout my long life, I have been especially fond of Ovid, a brilliant poet who eventually was banished to an island by Augustus for carmen et error (a poem and an error, perhaps one of his racy poems). He is best known for his epic poem, The Metamorphoses, which is superbly funny and clever and the source of our knowledge of Greek and Roman myths. It is also one of the few Roman poems that is really wonderful in translation.
Ovid’s love elegies (Amores), addressed to a fictitious mistress, Corinna, are very light and saucy. He is the last of three Roman elegists whose work is extant, the others being Propertius and Tibullus. Ovid incorporates the stock themes, style, vocabulary, and situations of elegy. It seems odd that it would have flourished only in the first century B.C., but its roots are in Roman comedy. It does not go back to Greek lyric poetry.
Ovid’s elegies in Book I are frivolous and fun. A love affair with a married mistress is not easy, and we learn it often involves metaphorical chains. In Amores I.6, the narrator begs a doorkeeper to take the chains (catena) off the door and make a small gap so he can slip in sideways and see his married mistress. He says he has shrunk so he can do this. I love the idea of a guy dieting so he can sneak in.
I went on to Amores I.7 , expecting more silliness, but the use of chains in this poem are different. The narrator has assaulted his mistress: he asks to be put in chains by any friend who may be present. And it is one of Ovid’s poems that shock us feminists (we all love Ovid, but scholars have written about rape in Metamorphoses) because the treatment of the violence is light. We see it from a Roman male point of view, and there is repentance, but perhaps not very seriously.
Here is the opening of the Latin elegy (my translation is below)
adde manus in vincla meas (meruere catenas),
dum furor omnis abit, siquis amicus ades:
nam furor in dominam temeraria bracchia movit;
flet mea vaesana laesa puella manu.
Here is my literal translation.
N.B. The word order in Latin is flexible, so the impact of the original is very different. (You only get approximations.).
Put my hands in bonds (they deserve chains)
until all madness leaves, if any friend be here.
For madness moved my rash arms
My girl cries wounded by my raging hand.
The narrator has struck his mistress. Violence against women is common in our society, and against men too, but we do not expect to read a love elegy about it. The narrator regrets his actions, but his hyperbolic mythical comparisons don’t apply–in fact, they undermine the expression of his sorrow. He compares himself to Ajax, driven mad by Athena so that he slaughtered sheep instead of the Greek leaders he wants vengeane on. The narrator’s mistress is like Cassandra, the prophetess who was dragged from a Trojan temple by the Greeks, “except that Cassandra’s hair was bound with a priestess’s headband.” Ovid has torn her hair, but he adds that she didn’t wear a headband. And he adds that disordered hair is becoming to her.
And yet we forgive Ovid. He realizes that if he had struck a Roman citizen, he would have been punished. He mocks himself, comparing himself to a military hero who is celebrated in Rome, where the crowd that follows the chariots will cry, “Oh, a girl has been conquered by this brave man!”
Her face is scratched and her tunic is torn. It is while he looks at her, pale as a marble statue, that he first began to know he hurt her. He says her tears are his blood. But he lightens up again: at the end he advises her to scratch his eyes and tear his hair.
This subject of violence against a woman is common in Roman poetry. It has also been treated by Propertius and Tibullus.
I must admit, I do not know what to make of this poem. And I do not know of a very good translation of Amores. Peter Green’s translation for the Penguin, The Erotic Poems, is adequate but wordy. Some poetry does translate better than others.